robert motherwell, red
It was in my first years in the mountains, late 1970s, that Malissie Pruitt told me something that stuck with me. In those years I was enamoured of country wisdom, still am, though the old wisdom is going away with the old people. About all that's left of country wisdom by now is in nursing homes on the foggy mountain top of memory loss. I remember Malissie was standing at the sink working in the kitchen and I was standing beside the refrigerator, we were talking. I don't remember what we were talking about, but she said, "Be good to a child and you'll have a friend for life." That's the kind of knowledge I think of as wisdom. I tend to be sympathetic with kids, appreciate them as individuals, am able to listen to kids and roll a ball back and forth without end. I like a child's point of view that is not yet corrupted with traditional ways of seeing and thinking, expectations, and then the sexual confusion at whatever age puberty happens now that puts an end to childhood like a door slammed in your face. It's easy for me to be good to a kid, and I did see over time that kids I knew continue to know me after they grow up and we're always glad to see each other.
Then, maybe five or so years later a kid was born I didn't yet know. When he was about two, I became acquainted with his daddy putting up hay and working together. Became friendly with the family and visited them more and more as time went by. I became a friend with everyone in the house. The boy was having a rough time that I recognized as a version of the hard time I went through in my vulnerable years. An insane daddy. In my time, a couple who were friends of my parents, Jack and DeLouris, became my "witnesses," meaning they witnessed what I was going through at home. I found in a book I think by Swiss psychologist Alice Miller that a witness is very important to the child in cases of what we call now abuse. Then it was called getting the shit beat out of you every day, for any reason, even "general principles." I learned that hitting kids only makes them angry and breaks down systematically the bond of love a child automatically feels for a parent. The child is put in a place where survival within oneself requires backing away into deeper and deeper resentment until it turns to hate.
In the register of deeds vault I was doing my work and a lawyer I knew was in there. Somebody he knew saw him and came into the space talking to him about a turn of events in his life. He lost his boy. The boy left and won't have anything to do with him. He was down in the heart about it. I felt nothing even remotely close to sympathy for him. I thought: treat somebody like shit and this is what you get. You had plenty of time to think about it. I left my parent situation and went as far as land allows, to the coast. Love for both parents was beat out of me by the time I was ten. From then on, the hitting and wisecracks only further alienated me. And of course, guess what. It's MY fault. It's always the kid's fault. The kid won't mind. I hated to let go of love for daddy and mommy, but to hold myself together, I needed to separate myself from them. My silent mantra upon being berated and knocked about was, You can control my body all you want, but you will never have access to my mind. And I shut myself off to them. Around them I wore a mask of obedience, and behind the mask I was myself. Didn't know who or what myself was, but I was I, and neither one of them would ever see who I am. Because no matter what I was or was not, it was in need of ongoing correction. Not guidance, but punishment. When I left them I never wanted to see them again the rest of my life, and I knew that. It wasn't an emotional reaction. I have seen them, but it's always been duty, like going to church.
I saw this little boy going through what I went through from that age. Watching him grow up was for me a review of my own relationship with my daddy. An anti-relationship is what it amounted to. I saw my little friend's daddy creating an anti-relationship with him, too. I chose to continue being a friend to his daddy, not out of respect, but because his wife told me that "when you're here, he's an angel." And I never saw anything angelic in the way he treated the kids. I thought then I can't do anything to stop the abuse, but I can be a witness for the kids, one who understands that they are right in not liking being beaten daily. And it's not their fault. By my presence they were treated less viciously. That was the best I could give them and still be able to know them. I'd think to them without saying it, just hang on, do the best you can, and bear with it til you reach the magic age of liberation, eighteen. Then you're free. Nobody can help you now. Social Services would only make it worse. Assassination works, but it's not an option. I watched my young friends bear with it. It brought back much of what I'd been through. What I learned was that I was not the problem. I was the target of an undiagnosed insane man who thought he was a rooster. I was better able to understand my own situation seeing it objectively outside myself. I was able to extend understanding to my young friends, and they got it. By "they" I mean his little sister too. We couldn't talk about it, but I believe telepathy flows over lines of love.
How many times I heard, "I want some respect outta you!" All I could think was, Show me something to respect. It goes without saying, I was not allowed to say anything. That would be talking back. The biggest problem was that I dared not ever say what I thought about any of it. I could only speak a long string of expletives supporting the occasional word toward eventually completing a phrase. I remember with a laugh the time he said, "I outta hit you for what you're thinking." I laughed inside, thinking, If you really knew what I was thinking, you'd kill me. That I live tells me you don't have any idea what's in my mind. I was free. Like a good schizophrenic, I dove within, the only place where I was free. My body and my decision making were shut down. But my mind was my own. I recently saw a guy in a Norwegian movie, ELLING, who had been similarly driven within, alas so far in that he couldn't come back. It's a beautiful movie if you can tolerate subtitles. I only watch subtitled movies, so it's no problem for me.
My young friend whose childhood I witnessed for his mental health sake turned eighteen. Daddy rooster went apeshit at the loss of control, brought an ultimatum to me that I can't be friends with both of them. OK. It wasn't even a decision for me whose friend I was. That was the end of friendship with the daddy I had lost all respect for by then. I told young'un he had some years of inner wildman cut loose going off in all directions ahead of him. All I asked was he survive it. And he did. By now, he's turning thirty next birthday, and has turned out to be one of the very best friends of my life. I won't try to grade my friends in best, next-best, or anything like that. It is a love in the heart that is the same in every case, like loving your kids. In my adult life, my friends have the most value of anything else in my life. Friends come first. No two ways about it. Less than a year ago, somebody I know was throwing off on my young friend and I had to interrupt him and mention that he was the same as my own, so when it comes to taking sides, that's already set. What all this is coming down to is I was good to a kid and now that kid has grown into a friend I could trust absolutely, in the true sense of the old-fashioned, pre-facebook meaning of friend. He has a fabulous wife who loves him and kids that love him. He loves all of them. And I am happy to see he is able to have a life post-eighteen of effusive love in his own home.